Priti Gandhi will never the forget the day she auditioned for the lead part in Rossini’s opera “La Cenerentola” (“Cinderella”) in New York City.
“I won’t name the opera company,” she says. “But I sang the audition and the general director looks at me and says, ‘Well, we really were hoping for a blonde for this role’ — meaning a white person.”
Gandhi is the daughter of immigrants from India, and the race-based rejection still rankles. “I had spent almost a month’s rent on getting to that audition,” she recalls ruefully.
That was nearly 20 years ago. Since then she has enjoyed an international career as an opera singer and a spell in management at the San Diego Opera, which she helped revitalize when it narrowly avoided closure in 2014.
Gandhi would have happily stayed in San Diego, but a year ago the job of chief artistic officer at Minnesota Opera fell vacant, and the temptation was irresistible.
The Minneapolis-based company’s track record in avoiding the type of ugly situation she encountered earlier was a major part of the attraction.
“Diversity in opera is one of the biggest challenges we face, and Minnesota Opera has really been a leader in the field,” she says.
Gandhi’s own experience of being a woman of color in opera makes her uniquely suited to taking the company’s diversity agenda forward.
“Just this past season we started what we’re calling a ‘360 Workgroup’ with four other opera companies to pool ideas about moving diversity forward,” she said. “And a Minneapolis company called Team Dynamics is working with our staff internally to challenge us on our assumptions.”
Talk is good. But how will the company more accurately reflect the range of social and ethnic identities we see in the broader community?
Casting is one area that can be an immediate game-changer. Working with opera president Ryan Taylor and creative adviser Dale Johnson, Gandhi has ensured that the 2019-20 season has a mix of fresh, exciting faces.
“The countertenor Cortez Mitchell, an African-American, will be singing the part of the refugee in Jonathan Dove’s opera ‘Flight,’ and the Argentine mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack is our Rosina in Rossini’s ‘The Barber of Seville,’ ” she says. “In Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’ the Cuban-American soprano Elaine Alvarez sings Donna Anna, and in Paola Prestini’s new opera ‘Edward Tulane’ we have Puerto Rican soprano Zulimar López-Hernández.”
Finding singers from a diversity of backgrounds is not always easy, Gandhi acknowledges, because not enough of them are enrolling at the universities and conservatories that offer professional qualifications.
“But I feel that when we have a hard time finding someone, it’s our job to take the extra time and try harder. Turn over more rocks, call more agents, talk to more conductors.”
Is positive discrimination part of the answer? Should preference sometimes be given to singers from underrepresented communities, even if they are outperformed at an audition? This is a prickly issue in the world of opera, and Gandhi has a clear answer ready:
“We want to put the best voices on the stage, that’s always our top priority. But I don’t believe that there aren’t diverse singers out there who are good enough for these roles. I’ve sung with them. And we need to make sure the opera world has open eyes for who we’re looking at, and where we’re looking.”
And what of audiences? When they see singers of color playing characters traditionally assumed to be white, is a degree of colorblindness necessary? Will audiences need to develop that, as part of the diversity revolution that Gandhi envisions?
“These are hard-hitting questions in this political era,” she responds carefully. But the answers she gives are uncompromising.
“Just because warhorses like ‘Carmen,’ ‘The Barber of Seville’ and ‘La Traviata’ were written when only white Europeans were available to sing them doesn’t mean we should continue to cast that way,” she argues. “We need to change the way we tell those stories, and open people’s imaginations.”
For Gandhi, achieving more diversity in the opera industry — among orchestral players, directors and conductors as much as singers — is clearly a moral crusade of sorts. But it is also crucial for opera’s survival, she says, in an era where audiences can shop around as never before for their entertainment options.
“Young people in particular expect to see more diversity in art, and we want more of them to experience the beauty of opera,” she said. “But if you don’t see any reflections of yourself on stage how on earth is that going to touch you? How is that going to rip you open in the way we want art to rip us open?”
Opening opera to all comers is Gandhi’s mission, and she thinks Minnesota Opera is the perfect place to do it.
“So that a young Indian girl never again has to do a ‘Cenerentola’ audition and be told she can’t do the part because of her skin color.”
Terry Blain is a freelance classical critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.